Babel, or The Necessity of Violence
August 30, 2022 10:08 PM - Subscribe

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.

Babel is the world's center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel's research in foreign languages serves the Empire's quest to colonize everything it encounters.

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
posted by soelo (18 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The full title is too long to fit into the title field:
Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution

This is the first book I've read by Kuang and I loved it. I'll be reading the Poppy War trilogy soon.

There is a review from early 2022 on Goodreads that says, "This book is going to single-handedly save the dark academia genre" I love that quote but I didn't know the genre needed saving!
posted by soelo at 10:15 PM on August 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

oooh definitely adding this to my read list! thanks
posted by supermedusa at 9:10 AM on August 31, 2022

Can anyone comment on reading this as an ebook? I'm debating whether to buy the ebook or physical book (because I know there are quite a few footnotes, which can be a pain in ebook form).
posted by epj at 10:41 AM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

The footnotes have been easier to read in this book than many other books I've read. (I use a Kindle.) I can't quite describe the differences between it being annoying and not annoying, but these haven't been as annoying to me.

As far as my feelings and thoughts about the book — well, they're mixed. It really is a powerful book and very well written. It's scathing in its depiction of colonialism. It's a very angry book. And although the author has degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford (and, incidentally, is in a PhD program at Yale) it's hard to find anything positive and affectionate about Oxford in these books. Yes, the main character finds it almost utopian as an academic environment, but the book is at pains to turn over the rock and reveal the colonialist ugliness underneath and for the main character, it's sort of just one painful disillusionment after another as he is forced to confront this ugly truth.

The book is poignant, and I expect that it will resonate very, very strongly with many people who've experienced the truth that there are no heights of achievement at which the colonialist system stops seeing colonials as grist for the mill. This book is brutal in exploring this and I think it makes it a very important book. It will win many awards.

The negative is that it's not really a genre book and it needn't have been a genre book. It could have been historical fiction. The magic system isn't elaborated that much and is really a barely-concealed metaphor for the rapacious resource extraction of imperial colonialism. There's nothing playful or delightful about this book — it's grim.

Last weekend I reached the final section where everything comes to a head and is obviously going to be tragic. On Twitter, numerous people have tweeted about how much they cried at the end. I found I just didn't want to continue with this at the moment, and I put it aside to finish later.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:52 AM on August 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

I listened to it as an audiobook, so I can't speak to the footnotes in e vs physical book. I did appreciate hearing the pronunciation in many of the footnotes. I didn't find them excessive and they were read by a different narrator (Chris Lew Kum Hoi reads the story and Billie Fulford-Brown reads the footnotes).

I agree the silver working is not integral to the plot, well, until it is. It acts as a metaphor and as a plot device. I expected a lot more fantasy in the storyline but that did not take away from the book for me. I think too much of it might have made it too cozy or hopeful? Part of the academic study of magic often includes the students' awe at accomplishing the magic deed themselves. That Robin's skills grew but the real wonder he felt was his circle friends is helpful in keeping it from being a comfort read when the betrayals happen.
posted by soelo at 12:37 PM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Babel is now #1 on the New York Times Bestselling Fiction list.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:14 AM on September 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

I never finished the Poppy War trilogy because it was just so relentlessly bleak. Should I just stop reading now before this book crushes me?
posted by skycrashesdown at 10:51 AM on October 8, 2022

How far along are you? I would not call this bleak and I do have issues with bleak books but that is more about the setting a lack of momentum in the plot for me. It might not be a satisfying ending for you, though. There is a standoff at one point that might get you bogged down.
posted by soelo at 1:20 PM on October 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

I’m very early in the book, Robin just got to Oxford. Spoilers are fine and expected here - mostly I guess I just want to know if he’s kind of ok at the end. I assume no just based on her previous work.
posted by skycrashesdown at 1:54 PM on October 8, 2022

No, though there is a lot that happens on the way.
posted by soelo at 3:40 PM on October 9, 2022

I just finished it a few days ago. I read in an interview with RF Kuang that the original title was similar to the one it ended up with, except with " seen through the life and death of one Mr. Robin Swift" added to the end. Which would have given up far too much.

I did my undergrad in linguistics, so of course I loved the kind of straight beam from her coursework at Cambridge and Oxford to the classroom scenes in the novel. The first part is just full of the love of intellectual adventure and discovery and the rigours of study at two of the world's oldest and most important universities. And the second part is the other side, or the underside: how all that knowledge is hopelessly entwined with the cruelties of colonialism. Three of the four characters, despite their places at Babel, and their student stipends and various other marks of privilege, discover that they are merely fodder for the colonial project and that as part of Babel they will only betray their home countries... or the home countries they slowly realise they are part of and transfer their loyalty to. The emotional arcs for these characters, from her interviews and writings about her time in England, are imaginative echoes of her own experience of racism there.

RF Kuang, herself, is hugely impressive: an MPhil and MSc from Cambridge/Oxford as a Marshall Scholar, currently enrolled in a PhD program at Yale, on her fourth published novel and the next, a satire on modern publishing called Yellowface ready to be released next year: she is a writing machine. And she's 26. I'm not even envious, just awestruck.

Anyway, I'd like to talk (if anyone wants to join in; I'd love to hear some thoughts) about the fourth character of the "cohort", the final side of the four-sided group: Letty. The one main character who becomes the true villain of the piece. Of course the Bad Guys are plentiful-- Babel faculty, colonial administrators, 19th century capitalists-- but they all prove to be one dimensional, even Robin's (secret) father, the Babel professor. Letty is the only complex antagonist, the friend who brutally betrays the others, committing murder in the process. She is a white woman, oblivious to her own racism; and yet a feminist who in her first year tries to engage a female faculty member in a discussion about the difficulty of being a woman at Babel (the only college to admit women in all of England in this world, I believe) and who is rudely dismissed. Why is the worst person in the book a white feminist? It's been gnawing at me a bit.
posted by jokeefe at 7:58 PM on October 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

I agree Letty is the worst person by the end. To me it is a pretty straight metaphor of how we white feminists are very good at being friendly with POC and seeing ourselves as "on their side" in the struggle for equality when we have nothing to lose. When it comes to giving up something integral to our comfort in support of that equality, many of us fail to be so brave. Would we betray the cause as egregiously as she does? It depends what the personal cost is for most of us. In real life it is rarely such an obvious and instant choice as it is the story, but more like a thousand little decisions.
posted by soelo at 8:46 PM on October 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

“Why is the worst person in the book a white feminist?”

I don't think Letty is the worst person in the book. Far from it. The white men in the book are clearly the worst, especially Richard Lovell.

It's just that to Robin, Ramy, and Victoire — and to some readers — Letty's betrayal, her moral failure, is especially hurtful.

For those of us who aren't people of color, those of us who are the colonizers, Letty is probably who many of us identify with most easily. Kuang doesn't let us off the hook for this; she's forcing us to recognize our own complicity.

For Robin, Ramy, and Victoire — well, Letty shared (partly) in their experience of being oppressed outsiders. Letty certainly believed (wrongly) hers and their experiences were comparable. The group was frustrated by this, by Letty's blindness and self-absorption, but she still was in some sense one of them and they reasonably hoped that she understood enough to do the right thing. They assumed her good intentions would make a difference in the end. But Letty's "good intentions" weren't what the group had thought they were — rather, what Letty understood as "good" was inevitably and tragically wrapped-up in her identity as a colonialist, that is to say: a white supremacist. She never was not that.

Kuang, like a lot of feminist non-white women, has a lot to say about women like Letty. What, after all, could Kuang say about men like Richard Lovell that hasn't already been said a thousand times? He and some others are one-dimensional, but why should Kuang humanize villainous men like them when so many other writers have been eager to do so, and have, to so little benefit?

I found the book too didactic and unrelentingly grim for my taste, but I'm not the intended audience. There has been in the last ten years a vast wave of anticolonialist narratives in speculative genre fiction, almost all written by women of color. Most have been more gentle and less challenging, but all have included a certain amount of justified rage. But Kuang doesn't pull any punches in this book and I think for both Kuang and her intended audience, it is a much- needed catharthis.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:21 AM on October 12, 2022 [5 favorites]

I mean Letty isn't the only white woman character in the book, there's two revolutionaries who are white women, Professor Craft being the one that surprised me the most by being willing to stay towards the end when recruited when Robin and Victoire took over the lobby versus the Irish character whose name I forgot (sorry!) who was colonized herself and part of the revolution.

But I've seen a lot more Letties getting in the way of things than I've seen revolutionaries. I'm white myself and I kind of wonder when Letty will finally get it, but I really feel like she portrays a certain type of white woman very well. During the old library scene I was anxious as soon as she asked to go outside and when the consequences happened I was like "Why did you let the embodiment of white women's tears go outside by herself?!?"
posted by azalea_chant at 8:18 PM on October 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

Wait more on Letty she's just embodied white fragility. Remember the scene on the ship when they've just had to explain the Hermes society to Letty and they're like "weird how we're the ones who are colonized and somehow we end up comforting her."? Yeah. White fragility.
posted by azalea_chant at 8:24 PM on October 22, 2022 [3 favorites]

I just finished this book last week and have very much the same reaction as Ivan Fyodorovich.

So many serious-minded fantasy books I read in the last couple of years are indictments against colonialism -- "The Traitor Baru Cormorant", "A Master of Jinn", "The Mask of Mirrors" -- to recall just a few, and "Babel" isn't the grimmest or the angriest among those, but definitely goes deepest in explaining how abuse and exploitation is built into the whole thing.

I love the magic system based on translation, and all the academic discussions about what makes a good translation, and why perfect translation is always impossible etc. However, I'm not entirely convinced that the match pair examples used in the book are all precise enough in their misalignments to be magically useful, which undercuts the rigor of the magic system a bit.
posted by of strange foe at 8:19 AM on December 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Read it and appreciated it. I agree it was grim, although I value the author's perspective. My one hangup with it is this: for a book that was so extensively researched, and that is about language, I was taken out of the story by the fact that the principal characters all speak like citizens of the 21st century. Maybe this was an artistic decision to make them more relatable to an audience that is also citizens of the 21st century, but it still struck me as a false note.
posted by adamrice at 12:15 PM on June 20, 2023

Just finished, and I must say this book is excellent in every way. I felt like the author was writing directly to me, exploring different scenarios and concepts. The metaphor is so on-the-nose, it can feel hard to notice sometimes.

At first I thought silver was a metaphor for silicon valley, for a.i., for any new technology. But, no, silver is quicksilver - it is currency, it is capital.

One question this book poses is, can capital's institutions ever do any good? The college boom in the 50s was funded by the war effort, and then defunded when people started doing arts and stuff. Skinner made birds that could fly missiles. This book says no, that institutions are inherently tied to capital's ownership of them, and everything else is public relations.

The next question is, given the above, can people inside capital's institutions ever do any good? Most of the book explored the creation of the best do-gooders possible, and then forced them to the very brink, one step at a time. No easy way out. I've never been to the brink, but I am a do gooder. I work within and for institutions.

And I think the last question the book asks is, in this scenario, who are you? Would you do something else? And, I think Letty is a wonderful interpretation of my own political struggle. And I ask, should she have done something different? Could she?

Robin's patricide changed everything for her. It raised the stakes above "try to change the system" to "change the system or die." Maybe for Letty, she could do nothing different because the other's words could not translate into her world view. Something was lost, and that something that was lost was the reason Remy was willing to be shot.

And in the end, Victoire tells us the only way out is forward. That small steps lead to large changes, and every large change is tied to a thousand other nodes. The book challenges the reader to choose what we demand from our revolutionaries: must they be marters, or can they move on?

An excellent book. But, as others have said, very depressing. I'll look for something with more humor now.
posted by rebent at 1:40 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

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